Translating the Bible

My friend Rick linked to an article by Kevin DeYoung about why his church switched to the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. Throughout the article, he compared the ESV with the once-ubiquitous (in the evangelical world) NIV. As you may know, the ESV follows the translation philosophy called “formal equivalence,” the same as the King James, RSV, and NASB. In fact, the ESV is itself a revision of the RSV text. The goal is, as much as possible, to preserve the original order of words from the original manuscripts. The NIV uses the “dynamic equivalence” philosophy, which goes thought for thought.

DeYoung argued for the formal equivalence philosophy, arguing that it allowed the reader more access to the original. A comment on Rick’s post linked to an article by the commenter, which made some interesting points as well. One point that he made was that the ESV preserved “archaic words”:

When was the last time you heard anyone use any of the following words in everyday conversation: manslayer, beloved, behold, kindred, O, abhor, abide, abode, adjure, ascribe, chide, confute, convocation, counsel (as both a noun and a verb), entreat, exult, festal, haughty, invoke, kin, ordain, portent, rail (as a verb), rend, revile, sated, shall, smitten, sojourn, stripes, or swaddling?[16] The average person simply does not speak this way anymore. This is “Christianese.” If you have heard these words, chances are it was in a church setting or on Christian radio. Translations should make the meaning of God’s Word clear. God ordained that the NT would be written in Koine, i.e. common Greek. I submit that the ESV is not Koine English.

As Allan Chapple has written, “Something more substantial than style or taste is at stake here, therefore. In my judgment, unacceptable consequences flow from the ESV’s choice of language. In practice, it is an elitist translation. As such, it may well be ‘user-friendly’ for the highly literate. It may also be preferred by older Christians, for whom it will satisfy any lingering nostalgia for the RSV. But I doubt that it will be easily understood by believers under thirty-five or so, especially if they come from an unchurched background and have not already been enculturated into ‘church-speak’. If they have to use the ESV regularly, such people will need to learn two ‘languages’: the great words that speak of who God is and what he has done for us—and ‘high-English’ or ‘olde-English’. They will be glad to learn the first; they should not need to learn the second.”[17] I think Chapple overstates his case, but there is truth in his words.

This would seem to be an important consideration, but I’m not convinced by his point. To me, it would turn on what level of writing the koine was. Did it have difficult words as well? Would dropping the “church-speak” water down the translation too much?

I don’t know much about translation, so I’m curious to know what others think. Also, what philosophies do Catholic and Orthodox translations tend to take, or are there are diversity of those as well?

You can find links to DeYoung’s and the commenter’s articles at Rick’s blog post that I linked to above.


6 thoughts on “Translating the Bible

  1. “Also, what philosophies do Catholic and Orthodox translations tend to take, or are there are diversity of those as well?”

    For personal reading, it’s all over the map, and most people don’t think about it a lot. In my experience, Catholics are much more comfortable with bringing tradition to bear in helping to interpret a passage, and I think this encourages a more relaxed attitude toward which translation style to use for Bible reading/study (at least for the laity and non-scholars). Protestants who think it is up to them to figure every passage out on their own as best they can tend to get much more worked up over this question, in my experience.

    For liturgical purposes, there are some real fights and disagreements over this question in the Catholic/Orthodox worlds, but they tend to be out of sight of most people. This generation’s leaders seem to prefer more literal translations. However, this is something of a correction to past generations who got sloppy (IMO) in what they would accept (e.g. the New American Bible). Thus, one hears about the preference for more literal translations coming from current leadership, but they are stuck with a translation that enjoys a near monopoly on liturgical use and is highly reliant on dynamic equivalence. Since nothing changes overnight, or even over decades, practice seems to contradict rhetoric, but probably that perception is partly due to my own limited understanding of the situation.

    Also, there are only certain translations that are approved for liturgical use in Catholic and Orthodox circles, and this is a big deal. At my wedding, I invited two Protestant men who had influential roles in my life to do the readings at my wedding mass. Both believe that if I believe what the Catholic Church teaches, I’m going to hell, so it was risky, but I wanted to honor them for the roles they had played in my life in the past and to include them in the liturgy in a significant way. One used the provided translation and has gone on to prove to be one of my dearest friends, despite thinking that Catholic teaching, if believed, leads one straight to hell. The other whipped out his J.B. Phillips paraphrase after he got to the lectern and proceeded to use that for the mass. And that highlights a huge contrast for me. While Protestants have much more protracted fights about which translation is best, as long as it fits in their sphere of appropriate, they’ll pretty much use anything at a worship service. Catholics and Orthodox don’t. They might use a translation that relies on dynamic equivalence, but they would never in a million years use an actual paraphrase like J.B. Phillips’ or Kenneth Taylor’s, and they won’t use anything in their liturgies that isn’t noted by the bishops as lacking in serious errors.

    As an aside, I think the guy probably used another text because he thought all Catholic translations were deficient. He had in the past come across as something of an ignorant bigot, but I didn’t dream he would lack the respect to make his desired changes known ahead of time. I suppose that assumption made me the ignorant fool that day.

    1. Doug, I meant to respond to this comment long ago. Like Kevin, I cringe at the second man’s actions at your wedding.

      Your summary was very insightful. What are the approved translations for Catholic and Orthodox liturgy?

      As far as Protestant attitudes toward interpreting the Bible, I think that the “figure it all out myself” attitude is something that is a 19th-century development. In “America’s God,” Mark Noll’s study of American evangelical theology from Jonathan Edwards to the Civil War, Noll describes the rise of the common sense approach to Scripture that largely discounted the interpretive traditions that had grown up even in Protestantism (two notable traditions would have been the Lutheran and Reformed). Here’s a post on it (, and you can find my summaries and reviews of sections of the book if you wish on my blog.

  2. Good explanation, Doug — in Catholicism, people rely more on priests and tradition than their own interpretations. Sorry to hear your wedding mass was soiled. I find it sad when I hear two good people arguing that one of them is going to hell because of a disagreement of doctrine that doesn’t have much practical significance in their lives. I think God is more understanding than that. But I digress on a big tangent there.

    I don’t believe God “ordained” that the NT would be written in common Greek. Or did he also ordain that the OT would be written in Hebrew and then translated to Greek? And ordain the whole Bible now be in a multitude of English versions? How does that help us decide which to use?

    Hebrew was the original OT, so should we ignore the Septuagint even though the NT uses it? Moreover, there are arguments that part of the NT was originally written in Hebrew and translated, which is not unreasonable given the orthodox Jewish origin. Greek was mismatched for Jewish concepts.

    Even converting Old English to Modern English has its semantic problems. Consider a simple word like “ye”. It is the plural of “you”. We don’t make that distinction in modern English, which means that we lose potentially important meaning in the translation (e.g. who is Jesus taking to? one or many?). Similarly, “brethren” can mean “brothers and sisters” (e.g. is Paul referring only to men?), etc.

    It’s nice to have separate words for these concepts. It reminds us that we’re dealing with a different culture and context than we are familiar with. No doubt, God wants His Word to be understood and applied today — the question is, how best to do that?

    NB: I responded to a related comment by Doug regarding a specific case of translation on our blog — Noah and the “uncover nakedness” allusion for sex.

    The problem of “dynamic equivalence” is a problem inherent in translation. The question is: do we limit interpretation to individual words (a more literal “formal equivalence”), or do we extend it to phrases and full thoughts (“dynamic equivalence”)?

    The theoretical ideal is _accurate_ thought-for-thought translation without bias, but if that is not possible with great certainty (which I suspect is the case), then just give me a literal translation with key interpretive comments about culture and context on the side. That puts me on firmer (more consistent) semantic grounds.

    What’s interesting is that full thought-for-thought translation with great certainty (dynamic equivalence) might not even be possible given the vagueness, limitations, and richness of human language recorded in Scripture.

    Here’s a couple of other examples:

    (1) When watching a foreign movie, I often prefer the literal subtitles to the (often dubbed) thought-for-thought translation. It gives me a better feel for the true meaning in other languages and what is going on. I’ve found that comedy especially needs a more literal translation.

    (2) Once you get the hang of it, Shakespeare is beautiful because of his symbolism. You translate the meaning behind it into blunt terms and you actually lose some meaning and richness.


    1. Kevin, I agree with you about the formal vs. dynamic equivalence issue and all of the translation issues that you raise. It’s such an imperfect science but a fascinating one too.

      I’m interested to know why comedy especially needs to be literal. On the one hand, I would think that jokes rely on concepts in cultures that may not be familiar to other people (or, in a pun, the way the word sounds), so these concepts and sounds would not translate in a literal way. On the other hand, perhaps a thought-for-thought translation completely washes away the context of a joke.

      You wrote: “I don’t believe God “ordained” that the NT would be written in common Greek. Or did he also ordain that the OT would be written in Hebrew and then translated to Greek? And ordain the whole Bible now be in a multitude of English versions? How does that help us decide which to use?”

      Yes, in that God ordains all things (Eph. 1:11). But I know we have a disagreement about the extent of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination. It doesn’t help us know which English translation to use, though. We have to use wisdom to decide that. Perhaps there will come a time where a more united church can have more agreement on a translation. Perhaps. To me that goes back to the first couple of sentences in this paragraph.

      You wrote: “Hebrew was the original OT, so should we ignore the Septuagint even though the NT uses it? Moreover, there are arguments that part of the NT was originally written in Hebrew and translated, which is not unreasonable given the orthodox Jewish origin. Greek was mismatched for Jewish concepts.”

      No, we shouldn’t ignore the Septuagint. It gives a good idea of how Jews even before the time of Christ understood the Scriptures. Plus, as you said, the NT authors used it.

      1. Your analysis of literal comedy is good, but I’ll elaborate that many idioms are based upon some meaningful symbolism or imagery that may be helpful to learn (even by inference) rather than replacing it with a simplified translation. The literal translation also provides a better sense of how that culture actually thinks, which can make it easier to understand the subtleties of their humor.

        However, as you point out, it does get a lot worse the closer humor gets to the syntactic details of the language rather than its meaning. e.g. entirely unrelated double meanings of words or fun rhymings or homonym jokes do not translate well at all. But I don’t think that kind of humor amounts to a big percentage.

        I recall one movie in particular “Kung Fu Hustle” whose subtitles made the movie funny on first viewing, but a subsequent viewing of the dubbed version almost seemed like a different, quite dull movie, even though it had the same plot.

        Yeah, predestination is a big one. How people can rationally mix it with free will and morality continues to elude me. Likewise regarding how God wills that all men be saved and yet predestines to not save all men.

        Your back reference to your first sentence in that paragraph exemplifies my sense of the infinite loop of predestination logic. But perhaps it does help you decide which translation to use, because whichever you use, God predestined it, so why quibble over it? 🙂

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